#235 from R&D Innovator Volume 5, Number 9          September 1996

Prioritizing and Planning—It Sounds So Easy
by W. Frederick Oettle, Ph.D.

Dr. Oettle is principal of Oettle Consulting Services in Newark, Delaware, solving management and communication problems for organizations (phone 302-731-5976).

Alice:  "I don't know for sure where I want to get to.  Cheshire cat: "Then it doesn't matter which road you take."  Time management experts use this undeniable truth to tell us we should set goals and plan to establish our priorities.  But if it's that easy, why do most of us have trouble getting everything done?

Several reasons:  people tend to forget the value of goal setting, and of planning their time; they forget the priorities they have set (and why); they are constantly interrupted for other people's priorities; they have multiple bosses to answer to; or they are trapped by crisis management.  If you recognize any of these situations, I'll go over some ideas to ponder and strategies to try.

Most people instinctively set goals, but tend to do so in such a way that the goals are of no help.  For instance, "I want to be successful,” "be happy, "be famous," and so on.  Who could argue with those goals?  But at the same time, what guidance do they give for detailed planning?  They are too general.  Specific goal setters feel a sense of control and mastery of their fate, which helps them deal with the stresses of daily life.  Those without goals--or goals that are too general--tend to feel like victims of life. 

Along with the psychological benefits, there is practical value to goals.  We all want to be successful, which means we have to know how we're doing.  With specific goals, we can focus on results instead of process.  We all have to decide what to do and when to do it.  Without specific goals, it's impossible to prioritize.

Two questions are at the heart of setting priorities: which task or project has the greatest potential to advance my career, and which do I enjoy most?  The career advancement issue is fairly straightforward, but why worry about what I enjoy doing?  Because that's what motivates us.  If you spend all your time doing what other people want you to do, the question is not if you will burn out, it's when you'll burn out.  Put something you enjoy on your daily activity list, even if you can only give it 30 minutes.  You will be able to say, "I chose to do that because I know it makes a difference"—and that seems to be enough to keep your interest in the job alive.

Planning for Problems

Imagine you were asked to head a committee to plan the annual family picnic, a morale booster, for your organization.  It's the committee's first meeting, and someone mentions "rain."  What sort of plans might you generate to handle the possibility of rain on the day of the picnic?  You can think of four or five options right off the top of your head.

What if no one mentions rain during the planning process, and it's the day before the picnic, and you turn on the news: "100% chance of rain tomorrow."  Of those four or five options you had, how many are still feasible?  Worse yet, imagine that you never turned on the news.  It begins to rain as you’re driving to the picnic.  How many viable options do you now have?  (You decide to look foolish: "We never thought of rain," or hope nobody remembers you were in charge of the picnic committee.)  The most common internal argument against planning and goal setting is a sense of uncertainty about the future; but planning and goal setting provide our only chance to affect the future.

Being effective requires doing the right things at the right time.  Time management texts describe a variety of techniques for prioritizing goals, such as comparing tasks against each other, considering the deadline and payoff for each task, comparing pay-off with time of investment for each task, and my personal favorite, the importance and urgency grid.  Some methods, however, are so detailed that prioritizing can, itself, become a major time consumer.

Interruptions

If you're constantly interrupted for other people's priorities, you will have to find strategies to change that situation because the people interrupting you see no need to change it!

Besides negotiating specific times to be available and to be left alone, try maintaining your work posture when you are approached by someone who wants to interrupt.  Most of us are instinctively welcoming.  Instead, try moving nothing but your head and saying something like, "How may I help you."  This keeps the decision in your hands until you know what the person wants; then you can decide if it's also a priority for you.

What if it's not a priority for you at that moment?  Learn to say, "no" by saying, "yes, but...."  Even if it's a priority, "closure" skills can help things along.  Try saying, "May I ask one more question before...?" or "Is there anything else I can do?" or "So, to summarize, you will... and I will...."  All imply that we are about finished.

Dealing With More Than One Boss

What if you have multiple bosses?  One valid, but often overlooked, use of time is to build better working relationships with other members of your team, including your bosses.  In any modern business, people have to work in a mutually supportive way to achieve organizational success.  Time invested in relationships pays off in increased quality and productivity.

It helps to understand your bosses’ goals, their styles of operation, and how they like to use time.  Some people focus on the present and the objective.  Their responses will be swift, efficient, and to the point.  Other people focus on their vision of the future.  They come across as quick, "stream of consciousness" talkers, and flexible.  People who focus on what is happening and the effect of others on them, respond in a slow, relationship-oriented "social" way.  Many in the research environment consider themselves "analytical," and they are more likely to focus on facts and history, responding in a deliberate, disciplined, and scheduled way.

The more you can incorporate all your bosses and their needs into your usual planning routine, the more efficiently you will be able to function; however, conflicts will still arise.  Many multiple-boss problems result from being given responsibility without sufficient authority.  Try asking your bosses to work out, among themselves, which work should come first, or ask for enough authority to set priorities on your own.  Let them know you can be much more productive if you don't have to communicate with all of them every time a potential change comes up.

If you get a general, prioritized job description (or list of duties), you can use this list as a justification for your priority decisions when conflicts arise.  Another approach is to submit your prioritized weekly plan to all of your bosses regularly, with the understanding that if they have objections to your priorities, they will promptly let you know.  This way, if someone initially doesn't object and then comes to you later in the week with a demand, you can use your submitted plan as a bargaining tool.

When one of your bosses makes a last-minute request, show them your weekly plan.  After seeing written evidence of the tasks you had scheduled, the boss who presented the immediate request is more likely to help you by directly working out the issue with the previously-scheduled boss.

Ask for specific deadlines, or offer your own specific deadlines.  When deadlines conflict, communicate.  Ask your line manager (real boss) for help in deciding priorities.  Occasionally, fear of saying "no" creates a problem because people make unintended  commitments by saying things like "I'll try.

Crises

Crisis management is perhaps the biggest single barrier to planning and prioritizing.  The cause of the crisis defines the options for dealing with it.  Keep a crisis log to learn where they come from.  If your crises are all true emergencies, deal with them by making plans for realistic eventualities and getting on with the job.  (No need to look for trouble; it will find you.)

If your crisis is caused by a colleague's crisis or working style, the two of you need to get together and negotiate.  If it's a customer or client's problem, you can ask about their real needs, and negotiate a response deadline.  Crises caused by routine business cycles are best dealt with by remembering those cycles during budget or resource planning.

Prioritizing and planning aren't easy.  But being a passive victim of life's changes and practical realities isn't easy, either.  Time spent using these tools will increase productivity and quality, helping yourself and your organization.

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